Michael Ryan

Visit to Bass Hall may have you singing Fort Worth Opera’s praises

I’ll never forget hearing an architect’s view that the public library he was designing needed to cry out to all who enter that something very important was taking place within.

No building I have ever seen anywhere — including Vienna, Austria, the unofficial world headquarters of important-looking structures — has ever trumpeted the gravity of its contents quite like Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall. The stunning 48-foot-tall protruding angels on its facade do that by themselves with their silent clarion call.

And while Bass Hall is home to Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, the Texas Ballet Theater, and the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and Cliburn concerts — and hosts much else, including Broadway shows — I’m not sure such a stately chamber hosts anything more consequential than the Fort Worth Opera.

I might not have written that if I hadn’t recently seen an opera for the first time — not counting “Phantom of the Opera,” which I don’t, because it’s become so mainstream and approachable.

Nor might I have accepted an invitation to last week’s run of Porgy and Bess, were opera not made all the more approachable by super-titles of the sung dialogue flashing above the stage. To me, the biggest barrier to opera had always been my certainty I wouldn’t understand a blooming thing. Problem solved.

From afar I always had an intrinsic sense that opera was important, if forbidding. It is civilization’s oral history put to music, the entirety of the human experience acted out in song. And even without super-titles it does span the twin canyons of language and culture: You don’t have to know what’s being sung to feel the emotion of the timeless and universal human dramas that opera brings to life.

But by far the most memorable aspect of opera to me now is simply the immense power of the performers’ unamplified voices. It’s one thing to hear such voices on CD or TV, and quite another to experience their potency in person. It’s breathtaking. I might be willing to pay an opera singer to recite the phone book. It’s that good.

Amid cable TV and movies and video games and everything else out there, opera is still a cornerstone of culture — multiple cultures, really: Besides all the European and Asian operas out there, the Fort Worth Opera this Friday, Saturday and Sunday is presenting “El Pasado Nunca se Termina,” a drama out of the Mexican revolution.

Is opera elitist? By reputation, certainly. But in reality, not at all — not in cost (cheaper than a pro sports game), dress (come as you are) or content: Now that you can get past the language, what you’re left with, says Fort Worth Opera artistic director Joe Illick, are eternal stories of love, betrayal, triumph and tragedy.

“There’s nothing in there that’s foreign to anybody’s experience, no matter what culture they come from,” Illick notes.

On the contrary, since scientists say our ancestors’ opera-like “primitive utterances” predated spoken language, singing is present in every human society and “part of who we all are,” Illick says.

Nonetheless, opera general director Tuomas Hiltunen and Co. are out to demystify it, break down perceived barriers to it and make a case for it — which probably shouldn’t be necessary in a culture-crazed city like Fort Worth.

They’re doing it in a multitude of ways that all come down to one word: accessibility. Cheap $5 tickets to dress rehearsals for underserved area high school students. A rare first-in-the-U.S. “relaxed performance” in a tailored environment for kids with sensory conditions such as autism. Special concerts by some of the world’s greatest singers. Community outreach.

They’re building opera’s future fan base, but the results can be instantaneous. During the opera troupe’s visit to the James L. West Center for Dementia Care last November, Hiltunen says one tight-lipped resident suddenly burst into song during a German-language aria, of all things — and ended up being part of a remarkable impromptu duet. And when the female lead in last week’s Porgy and Bess production fell back into her “happy dust” addiction, many of the 2,000 high school students at the rehearsal gasped audibly.

“They go crazy for opera,” Illick says of youths exposed to it.

Naturally, not everyone will. But everyone should have the opportunity. And I highly recommend taking it.

Nicholas Cage’s dejectedly working-class character in the movie “The Family Man” tries on an expensive suit at the mall and declares, “Wearing this suit actually makes me feel like a better person.”

That’s the effect trying the opera on for size may have on you.

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